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Some Say They Can't See Racism
By Iván Román
January 27, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Luis Raul Torres Cruz remembers the anger years ago, when his girlfriend's parents rejected him because he was black.
Now a lawmaker in Puerto Rico, the anger over what he sees around him isn't quite so personal, but it comes from the same unfortunate root. He sees white people working in banks and department stores while in fast-food restaurants, black people tend to be the ones taking his order.
With few exceptions, black people are nowhere to be found in the big law firms, the boards of directors in public and private corporations, government leaders or on the bench. The local civil-rights commission has determined that police officers, some of them black themselves, treat black youth and adults poorly, and the face of poverty on the island tends to have a darker hue.
To stop all this, Torres Cruz says, you have to go to the top and use the government's power to start breaking down that prejudice. On the Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday, he presented a bill to create the Solicitor's Office to watch for the rights of the black people in Puerto Rico and take any court action against public or private entities that discriminate.
"This isn't a simple problem, and it's a problem that authorities here don't want to acknowledge," Torres Cruz said. "It's time that we take affirmative action and stop just conducting studies."
The concepts of affirmative action and racial quotas never existed here. With the help of anti-discrimination activists, Torres Cruz hopes to convince his fellow legislators that this is an issue that must be dealt with.
But the public hearings on the bill are sure to highlight a much bigger obstacle: society's denial.
To say there is discrimination, you have to look for ways to measure it. And how do you measure it and justify government money and action if the people don't see themselves as black or recognize discrimination?
In the 2000 census, 81 percent of the island's 3,808,610 people identified themselves as white, 8 percent black, and 7 percent marked they were "some other race."
For some, those numbers reflect a rejection of the United States' rigid racial categories that don't quite fit into a society that applauds its Spanish, African and indigenous racial and cultural mix. For others, it's a perpetuation of the centuries-old custom of hiding the physical African ancestry as a way to deny or ignore discrimination.
"That denial makes it an uphill battle, because when we discuss how the government should help a population, we have to define what population we're talking about," said Palmira Rios, a researcher on race issues with the University of Puerto Rico. "We have to identify from our perspective how we define race and also how we discriminate."
Activists and scholars here must start from that point of denial and the complex web of confused or suppressed attitudes on race common to Latin American countries. Fewer public figures insist there is no racism these days. Labor and Human Resources Secretary Victor Rivera Hernandez, who is black, says he was discriminated against in the past and insists there is racism in government, private companies and the media. Complaints about racial discrimination on the job have tripled since he took over the agency a year ago.
But to create awareness, more action is needed. Unlike stunted bureaucracies that already exist, activists say a solicitor's office must have the budget and subpoena and investigative powers to really make a difference.
"It's not doing something just to do something," Rios said, "but doing something to change things."